Edgar Prado paused and let the comment hang in there. Said with good intentions, it could have been received with a smile or a snarl. Prado split the difference.
"Where did I go?" Prado said. "You said, 'Nice to see you back.' Where did I go?"
The 46-year-old Hall of Fame jockey didn't smile or snarl, he just stared and asked the question.
Literally, the Peruvian-born veteran hadn't gone anywhere, showing up to work every day, going about his business in his quiet, deliberate style. Figuratively, he had been to the brink.
In 2012, Prado won 75 races and $4.8 million in purses. It was the lowest number of wins since 1987, the least amount of earnings since 1995.
This year, he's won 72 races for $4.7 million, including big stakes aboard Rydilluc and a sweet stakes win Monday with Qushchi for longtime client Graham Motion. Prado is just 3-for-45 at Saratoga, but he enjoyed a strong winter stand at Gulfstream and has begun to revive a career that looked, at best, stagnant and, at worst, over.
Prado swears he didn't go anywhere. His statistics tell a different story.
Prado's numbers declined every year from 2008 when he won 215 races and $15 million in purses. The numbers spiraled in 2009 when he won 123 races, then 116, dipped to 79 and to his nadir last year.
One year after hiring Bob Klesaris as his agent, Prado has turned it around. He'll never rack up the numbers he once did, he'll never win another title at Saratoga, his Eclipse Award has been to the engraver - along with his Hall of Fame plaque. But, still he rides, the consummate professional, one ride at a time, one day at a time.
"I will never give up," Prado said. "It's never too late to follow your dreams. You have to encourage yourself, motivate yourself and go on. This is what I want to do. When things go bad, you have to go with the flow, work hard and hope the results change in the future. You get hot, you start winning, they start hiring you again."
Monday, he was as good as he's ever been, settling Qushchi in sixth, just off the peloton, close enough if good enough. Rounding the turn, he allowed centripetal force (or something) to spin the British-bred 5-year-old to the outside, a slap left-handed, keeping it tight - but not too tight - on the line of rivals inside and it was over. Just like old times.
Motion and Prado have teamed up for big wins, ever since they were in Maryland, big fish about to leap from a small pond. Motion has kept the faith in Prado. It had gotten lonely in that camp.
"You go for so many years and you're supposed to build friendships and relationships, and sometimes you come out in the morning and everybody turns around and go the other way. Come on, you're not asking for money or carrying any diseases," Prado said. "You go there and try to do what you can, to talk about horses or whatever else. If I rode for somebody, it was because something was there. Don't walk away. That was the hardest part to swallow. There's only a handful of friends. I love the business, don't get me wrong, but it's a business."
Prado, 46, blames circumstance for some of his fall. Longtime supporters, trainer Bobby Frankel and owner Carl Lizza, died. Longtime client, Rick Dutrow, got suspended. Prado changed agents, once, twice, three, four times.
You don't survive in this game without perspective and you certainly don't survive without an ability to take a punch. Prado expects it.
"It's tough at the beginning, it's tough to stay on top, it's tough to maintain your customers, as you go down, it's tough to get up. It's always tough," Prado said. "The best part, I guess, is when you stop talking to the people and go out there and ride, you bond with your horse, you do what he does best and do what you do best, ride the race."
Prado has been doing that since arriving in Florida to ride for Manny Azpurua in 1986. He moved to Maryland, dominated, leading the colony for five consecutive years. He moved to New York in 1999, won the Belmont Fall Meet in 2000 and subsequently earned nine more riding titles in New York, including two at Saratoga. He won an Eclipse Award in 2006 after guiding Barbaro to win the Kentucky Derby.
In Prado's mind, he's far from down, his career far from over. Through Tuesday, he's ninth on the all-time win list with 6,658 and fifth on the career earnings list with more than $246 million.
"I know there are cycles in every sport, you're up and down. It's up to you to get up and keep going. I enjoy riding more than anything else in this world, even riding bad horses, I still enjoy it. I love the horses," Prado said. "Things weren't clicking, it doesn't mean I forgot to ride. After 6,700 winners, you don't forget how to ride, it's what I've been doing my whole life, I knew how to ride horses before I could walk."